Schools Will Never Return to Business as Usual. Here’s How They Can Make the Most of Our New Reality.

Aug 19, 2020

Right now schools are making—and, in some cases, already implementing— tough decisions about where learning should take place this fall. Elected officials are making decisions contrary to recommended guidelines that can leave school leaders in an impossible situation of shouldering accountability for health and safety while lacking the control to do so. Yet educators are still doing their best to prioritize students’ psychological and developmental needs in this vacuum of resources, guidance and personnel.

All of this effort may get schools to the starting line in the short-term, but schools need to be thinking about the long-term, too. We—two psychologists at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence—spoke to educational leaders and one futurist about what is needed to make this new reality work for educators and students in the long run.

“Schools will never return to business as usual,” predicts futurist Andrea Saveri. A futurist analyzes quantitative and qualitative data from current trends in order to predict the alternative scenarios that could play out in conditions of uncertainty, and Saveri’s work focuses on education mapping specifically.

“The U.S. education system was designed 100 years ago to support the Industrial Revolution,” Saveri explains. “A shock like the pandemic shows just how rigid the institution really is. The future will only be more ‘VUCA’—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—because of pressures like globalization, greater connectivity and climate change. How schools reorganize now, in response to the pandemic, may only be a dry run for what will be increasingly needed in the future.”

Saveri’s analysis places emotional, interpersonal and cultural competencies at the center of adapting to a rapidly-changing post-industrial world. Uncertain conditions demand creativity and innovation. People will need to be emotionally intelligent and interpersonally skilled in order to collaborate across diverse perspectives to find solutions, as well as to manage the overwhelming feelings of grief, despair and anxiety that a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world can trigger.

One school that has already adopted this mindset is the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, a public high school led by principal Brooke Jackson. The Lab School laid groundwork years ago by training staff in RULER, a schoolwide approach to social-emotional learning from our Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Courageous Conversations, a model for training and coaching organizations on racial equity; restorative circles for community development and conflict resolution and more.

These approaches teach adults and children how to use their emotions wisely and how to support inclusive, positive relationships to strengthen and grow their communities, which in turn support them. “We can have hard conversations in a way that is caretaking and doesn’t create more anxiety, depression and isolation for kids,” Jackson says.

In response to COVID-19, the students at the Lab School have been organized into intimate, amphibious squads that can function either in person or at a distance. The squads are autonomous and choose the focus of their interdisciplinary projects together. Courses are taught by two teachers, allowing learning to continue if one develops health issues or leaves. Teachers serve as case managers for students, communicating with families, administrators and guidance counselors. Every morning begins with an in-person or distanced check-in, with mental health the top priority.

Jackson’s high school students will have virtual spaces for student-led affinity clubs, and students will have opportunities to be teaching assistants, helping younger students with learning challenges and deepening their own relationships to favorite teachers or subjects. Their school day, also shorter, will end with an enrichment “band” where students can choose a deep dive into topics like the 2020 election or a creative writing project about life under COVID-19—without homework or tests.

Teachers’ relationships with one another are also critical, Jackson says. Every Friday, Lab School educators hold a Zoom space for sharing and processing. “I’m going to try to hang on to my teachers,” Jackson says. “We might not have a computer lab or new furniture, but I know everyone will chip in to help problem-solve. We are brothers and sisters, and the water’s too heavy for any one educator.”

Dawn DeCosta, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in Harlem, has always prioritized emotional and social skills but is leading her fall planning with new, developmentally appropriate opportunities.

DeCosta’s elementary school students will be able to have question-and-answer sessions with their teachers about living with the new safety guidelines. They’ll also spend the first month getting to know each other by creating visual projects on identity, culture and family. The school day, whether in-person or virtual, will be shorter, structured by predictable routines, and interspersed with “brain breaks” for meditation, gratitude practices, checking in with feelings or community kindness projects.

But DeCosta adds, “Our teachers responded to distance learning in inspired ways, but teachers, alone, cannot do everything that’s being asked of them. Schools need real help from their communities.”

DeCosta’s holistic view is consistent with 40 years of research in developmental science, which shows that an individual does not shoulder wellbeing alone. The systems in which an individual is embedded are also responsible. When the people in environments outside of families and schools support children’s needs, children do better.

DeCosta details the kinds of support she’d like to see from the wider community, for distance and in-person learning:

  • Technologists can help families and teachers secure and learn to use the tools in creative ways that advance distance learning, such as Wi-Fi, devices and virtual learning platforms.
  • Architects and builders can share expertise around creating new spaces or reconfiguring existing for learning, eating and playing to provide greater distances between people while retaining humanity and connection.
  • Psychological services can support children, parents and educators through unprecedented emotional distress. State psychological organizations can help by linking psychologists, therapists and trauma specialists with local schools, and schools can create nimble Psychological First Aid teams to respond to incidents of critical need.
  • Community social services can connect with schools to help parents with housing insecurity, unemployment and financial assistance, childcare, and family and medical leave rights.
  • Pediatricians and nurse practitioners can provide frequent COVID-19 testing, routine vaccinations and screening for other health concerns since people are avoiding hospitals and delaying routine health checkups.
  • Bodyworkers and somatic therapists can mitigate trauma by teaching adults and children how to settle stress in their bodies, since many children are experiencing more severe bouts of stress and grief now than normal.
  • Food providers can creatively address food insecurity among families that are facing a loss of income, or who rely on schools to provide up to three meals a day.
  • Artists and designers can create aesthetic, compassionate solutions to problems like children’s fear of masks, their need for a physical hug or touch of reassurance or their sadness over sick or deceased family members.
  • Philanthropists can underwrite innovative education trials and grantors can continue to step up to supplement educational funds.

The map of each school’s needs and resources will be different, but emotional wellbeing and community support must be consistent priorities throughout.

Children do better when environments align to support development. (Adapted from Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P. (2006))

The Lab School and Thurgood Marshall Academy are models for how schools can rise to meet the challenges of these trying times. They also hold the promise of the systemic transformation needed to benefit our children’s futures.


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